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Poets: The Curries

MacSuibhne's Feast showing a chief, his wife and retinue being entertained by a poet to harp accompaniment

Who were the Curries?

In the Scottish Highlands, people could make an excellent from composing poetry in Gaelic. The Currie dynasty of poets were the best. Many have said they’re not familiar with that surname at all. Curries are from Scotland and Currys are from Ireland. No connection to the dish from India. The Scottish name in Gaelic is MacMhuirich (son of Muireadhach, sea warrior), pronounced something like MacWhirich or MacCurrich. The mac was dropped in English, and you have ‘Currie’. 

The Ancestor of the Curries

The Curries were a high-status clan, the professional poets of the MacDonald Lords of the Isles. They are said to be descended from Muireadhach Albanach Ó Dálaigh, a member of a dynasty of professional poets in Ireland. In the 13thcentury Muireadhach had to leave Ireland in a hurry because he had killed his lord’s tax collector in a rage—with an axe. Poets did not pay taxes and to require it was an insult to his profession and skills. To expiate the murder, he joined the Fifth Crusade to the Holy Land. 

An Duanaire

Image shows 2 pages of the Red Book of Clanranald written by Cathal MacMhuirich
Two Pages of the Red Book of Clanranald

 After the forfeiture of the Lordship of the Isles in 1493, the patrons of the Curries were the Macdonalds of Clanranald (Clann Ragnaill), but they composed poetry for other chiefs as well. Every chief worthy of the name required a duanaire, a book of poetry which praised themselves but also contained poetry and histories which appealed to them—material which dealt with allies and related clans. The Red Book of Clan Ranald is a duanaire

The Education of the Curries

As well as composing praise poetry, the professional poets were the historians, genealogists and tutors for clan chiefs. There was a hierarchy of poets; ollamh, the master poet, the highest rank, spent up to twenty years ‘in the schools’ learning the art. There were seven ranks but ollamh, filidh, an Roth and bàrd were the most common. Bards were the lowest rank BION as they only spent three years or so in the schools. (But saying Shakespeare was the ollamh of Avon just doesn’t have the same ring as bard of Avon.) The Curries were reckoned the best dynasty of poets as there were many ollamhan and filidhean among them.

A reacaire, reciting a poem to harp accompaniment
A Reacaire Reciting a Poem at MacSuibhne’s Feast

The poets were supported by a number of chiefs. When the poets went on a cuairt, a journey to compose poetry for several chiefs, each would reward them with gifts. One chief might supply the poet’s family with land for farming. Another might provide clothing, not cheap in those days, and still another might supply a horse and gear or a bow and arrows for catching game. Musicians such as harpers made a living in the same way. 

Curries & the Druids

Professional poets were forbidden to fight, an ancient expectation as their order developed from the druids. They were also forbidden to compose poetry while riding on horseback; a poem exists which is critical of a poet who did so. Instead, they spent a day in a darkened room with their head wrapped in a plaid and a stone on their bellies to exclude all external stimulation. In the evening they arose and wrote down the poetry they composed during the day. They had prodigious memories–they could remember thousands of lines of poetry as well as histories and genealogies of the major clans. 

The professional poets could speak, read and write four to six languages and were knowledgeable about history and current affairs. As they travelled on a cuairt, they learned the news of the regions through which they passed. It was part of their job to inform people of what was going on elsewhere in the great world.

In 1830 a Currie man addressed the Gaelic Society of London and said he was the descendant of thirty generations of poets, who composed poetry over a period of almost 900 years. Professor Derick Thomson of the University of Glasgow verified the names of poets he gave against written records, and they matched. The Currie man was illiterate. The descendant of druids, of the aos-dàna (learned men), could neither read nor write. Why?

Assimilation

The goal of the Scottish Privy Council was to assimilate Highlanders, who spoke Gaelic, to Inglische (English), spoken in the Lowlands. The Statutes of Iona (1609) forbade Highland chiefs to support the poets, who provided an education in Gaelic to their children and who made the poems that made them famous. The chiefs were also required to send their heirs to Lowland or English schools or risk the forfeiture of their land. The Education Act of 1616 outlawed the Gaelic language, the ‘cause of barbarity and incivility’ in the Highlands.

By the mid-17th century, the services of the professional poets were no longer required. By the mid-18th century few chiefs, particularly the landed gentry, spoke Gaelic. They had become part of the British aristocracy and spent their time in London and Bath. Yet poetry remained a major cultural by-product of the Gaelic language. Almost every village where Gaelic is spoken has a bàrd-baile (village poet) to compose poetry and songs to mark important events. 

Alex Currie was a brilliant piper from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, Canada, who was descended from the poetic dynasty. Robert Currie is a poet who was born in Lloydminster, Saskatchewan, Canada in 1937, and he has won many prizes for poetry in English. I presume his family came from Scotland and he may be descended from the Currie dynasty.

Sources:

Osborn Bergin, Irish Bardic Poetry Reliquiae Celticae (Red Book of Clanranald) Derick Thomson, The Companion to Gaelic Scotland

Medieval Bardic Poetry Performance

Clan Currie/ MacMhuirich

Seudan

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